Scorsese’s culture industry

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Martin Scorsese’s recent article is on the one hand a celebration of the master filmmaker Federico Fellini, and on the other a lamentation of the slow decay of cinema as an art form. Critical theorists and philosophers will smile with cynical glee at the article because they will know that Scorsese is espousing a position incredibly similar to that of Theodore Adorno, the big daddy of critical theory. Heavily associated with the Frankfurt School, a group of philosophers and sociologists dedicated to a Materialist analysis of mass culture, he formulated the idea of “the Culture Industry”.

Scorsese is nostalgic for a time when cinema was in its infancy as an art form. Moving images had been around for a while, but it was only in the fifties that artists realised they could become filmmakers, quite literally with Warhol and Cocteau, but also filmmakers could become artists. He lists his favourites:

“Godard and Bertolucci and Antonioni and Bergman and Imamura and Ray and Cassavetes and Kubrick and Varda”

Fellini reigns as kind in Scorsese pantheon. I don’t disagree and recommend that you read his article. There is simply nothing as invigorating as reading an artist discuss their passion for their heroes. It reminds us of their humanity, how, like us, they venerate their predecessors. It reminds me of the part in Midnight in Paris where the protagonist, who romanticises the Paris of roaring twenties, realise that the very artists he worships think nothing of themselves in comparison with their heroes, the artists of the Belle Epoque. There is condolence in this repetition. We are humbled as a result.

But Fellini would struggle to exist today. Scorsese writes:

“the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, “content.”

Films will repeat the same patterns and regurgitate the same symbols that they know have been tried and tested to bring in the cash

In an industry that is driven by profit “value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property.” Studios are simply not interested in cultivating art that only appeals to a minority and consequently does not make money. With profit as a diving force, producers will create films that appeal to everyone, a wider audience means greater profit. The result is the rise of the big dumb action movie that appeals to our most basic faculties and do not require attention or sustained effort to engage in. This is what Adorno, and his partner in crime sociologist Max Horkheimer, refer to as the “Culture Industry” the process of commodification of mass art in the name of profit and the consequent impoverishment of the aesthetic. Having refined their formulas and tricks over fifty years, the Culture Industry is the dominating force entertainment today. Big studios have a Monopoly on culture itself, Disney, and Fox and so on. But their prioritise are not aesthetic ones but financial ones.

This is exactly what Scorsese means when he writes: “We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word “business”

The words “mass visual entertainment” are an apt way to describe the state of contemporary cinema. We are duped by flashy gimmicks to grab our attention, explosions, celebrities, gratuitous violence. Cinema, as an art form, demands our loving attention and concentration simply cannot compete and will not survive, stamped out by studios who want to make money. Homogenisation ensues. Films will repeat the same patterns and regurgitate the same symbols that they know have been tried and tested to bring in the cash. A new gloss is thrown over them to dupe us into thinking they are new and surrendering our hard-earned wages.

Having refined their formulas and tricks over fifty years, the Culture Industry is the dominating force entertainment today.

A film like 8 ½, that is three hours long and fundamentally lacking a typical plot would never be greenlit in fear of alienating its audience and not breaking even. I would argue that this is exacerbated in an age where our dependency on our smartphones has slowly diminished our attention spans leading to a hunger for easy “content” – or nothing but “visuals”. Not only would a film like 8 ½ not be made, but it would barley be watched either.

So what of the “art” in cinema? Doesn’t this sound elitist? One of the most common criticism of Adorno is that he is a snob. Why can’t people enjoy Marvel films? The problem is not that people like seeing Marvel films, but rather that they only like seeing Marvel films. Art films are considered to be boutique, accessible to a select few with subscriptions to MUBI and the Criterion Channel. But this is a fallacy. Fellini’s films, and good cinema, are for everyone to engage in. They are “among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly”.

Image: Myke Simon on Unsplash

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